How to Talk About Death
Death is an uncomfortable topic for the majority of people. It’s something most people don’t like to think about and would rather not engage in a discussion about. You may very well find yourself in a position one day where you’ll need to navigate these difficult conversations, whether or not you’re comfortable with them. If you’re asking yourself “What do you say to someone who is dying?”, keep reading for some conversation starters and tips.
Talking about death with someone who is dying
Knowing what to say to someone who is dying and knowing how to talk to someone who is dying is important. If you aren’t sure where to start, here is some guidance on conversation starters or conversations you may want to consider having.
Ask about visiting logistics (who do they want there)
When a loved one is dying, it can be difficult to balance the needs and wants of the family, the requirements of the hospital or hospice, and the needs and wants of the individual who is dying. Speak to your loved one about what their preferences are for visitors, including times they’d like visitors, who they’d prefer not to see (although you may want to suggest they be open), and what’s overwhelming for them when visitors arrive. Try not to crowd the room or space with too many people at once and be respectful and mindful of your loved one’s state of mind.
Facilitate discussions between them and their healthcare provider
You want to make sure your loved one is as comfortable as possible throughout this process. It’s possible they’re understating their level of comfort or aren’t being honest with what they need during this time, likely to avoid causing stress. Be sure to ask and encourage them to share what would make them the most comfortable and whether or not there’s anything they need from their doctor. Additionally, they might have questions about what to expect throughout the dying process. Ask them if there’s anything they’d like to ask their doctor or communicate to their doctor.
Don’t avoid the topic of death
Family members sometimes feel as though bringing up death and talking about death make it more difficult for the person who is dying. This can sometimes be the case, but isn’t always true. Sometimes dying individuals want to talk about death, talk about their experience and share their hopes, fears, and thoughts on what it means to die. Letting them know it’s okay to share their feelings and thoughts on it is a good way to make them feel comfortable with being vulnerable. It may be upsetting to hear some of their thoughts, but it can help them to know they are allowed to be honest with how they’re feeling without upsetting you.
Talk about everyday and normal things
It may seem rude, or somehow inappropriate, to talk about everyday and mundane things with someone who is dying. This isn’t always the case; sometimes dying individuals want to talk about mundane and normal things. They’d like to hear about how your day was, the drama going on in your life, what the latest news is, etc. and are hoping you’ll discuss that with them. Hearing about normal things can provide a sense of normalcy and calm, so don’t be afraid to resort to more casual topics.
Share your feelings with them openly; say “I love you”
The last thing you want is to miss the opportunity to tell your loved one how much you love them and how much they mean to you. It may feel dramatic or as though the timing isn’t quite right, but if someone is dying, timing is essential. Waiting to say something important can lead to never being able to tell them how you feel. Saying “I love you” and expressing your feelings openly is important, especially if you feel like you may regret it in the future had you not said anything.
Let them know they’re forgiven
Everyone’s relationship with their loved ones is different. Some are easygoing, some are complicated and others are full of tension. If they’ve done things that you are willing to forgive, that are a defining feature or point of tension in your relationship, it can be healing to let them know they’re forgiven. This can be reparative to both you and your loved one.
Ask for forgiveness
Conversely, if you’ve done something to your loved one that you don’t feel like you’ve been forgiven for, asking for forgiveness is something to consider. Keep in mind that they’re under no obligation to give their forgiveness, so be prepared to hear an answer that might hurt your feelings.
If the person who is dying is someone that’s done a lot for you, has been involved in your life meaningfully, or has done something you want to acknowledge, let them know. Thanking your loved one can be really meaningful for them and can help them recognize a life well lived.
Keep a journal or ask to write down final thoughts
Keeping a written record or journal of your loved one’s thoughts near the end can be a keepsake for you and others in the future. Ask them if there’s anything they’d like recorded or written down and keep a written record so that you have a permanent reminder of the things they wanted you to remember.
Ask them what their final wishes are
Knowing your loved one's final wishes is important and can ensure that the funeral planning process and end of life process goes smoothly. Talking about someone’s final wishes is an especially important topic on the list of what to say to someone who is dying soon. If they haven’t left a will or instructions on what to do, you’ll want to ask what their preferences are. Here are some common questions to consider asking:
- When you pass away, what would you prefer that your family does with your body?
- What type of event would you prefer in recognition of your life?
- Is there a location that you feel would be most fitting?
- Is there anything specific that you would like people to do at the event?
- Is there anything else that you would like to request?
Talking about death with someone who just lost someone
It can be difficult to know exactly the “right words to say” when someone has recently lost someone. There are many different avenues you can take, but you’ll want to make sure you’re coming across as genuine, compassionate, and supportive as possible. Here are some things to keep in mind when talking about death with someone who just lost someone:
Don’t minimize their loss
Sometimes, to avoid feeling awkward about death or talking about dying, individuals can minimize the experience of a loved one. If someone just lost someone, try to avoid saying things like “Things will get better”, “It could be way worse”, “at least you had time with them”, etc. These phrases may seem like they can come across as comforting or supportive, but they really tend to end up minimizing the experience of the person you’re speaking with.
Remember everyone grieves differently
Grief is different for all of those going through it and no one experience is exactly the same. If you know someone who seemed to accept the death of someone quite quickly and are now speaking with someone who’s having a horrible time, don’t compare the two situations. Keep in mind that everyone grieves differently and there isn’t a proper process or timeline for one to go through. Speak to your friend, family member, or loved one who is grieving about their loss. Let them know you’re there for them and want to support them however you can. Invite them to share about the person they’ve lost, how they’re feeling, and what they’re going through and listen intently.
Respect their beliefs
Death can bring out a lot of different beliefs from people, even if they aren't beliefs that individual necessarily always believes in or stands by. Respect that they're grieving and that their beliefs are there own. If they start talking about something you disagree with fundamentally, consider if it's really the best time to start challenging them or arguing with them. If you do decide to challenge them, try to do so thoughtfully, with empathy and patience (and with the true intent to help, rather than harm).
Offer your sincere condolences
If you’re not sure what to say, offering your sincere condolences is an excellent place to start. Condolences can be short or a little more lengthy, depending on the context and how well you knew the person. In any case, make sure your condolences are genuine and let the individual know that you’re there for them. If you need guidance on how to give condolences, here’s a guide.
Talking about death in everyday life
Most people actively avoid talking about death, so this may seem like a strange topic to consider talking about in everyday life. That being said, it’s still a topic that everyone will inevitably confront at some point in their lives. Here are some ways to get yourself more comfortable with the idea of talking about death in everyday life.
Whether you believe in reincarnation, life after death, or that death is the end of all things -- being curious can help you understand the experience of others and better support those close to you when they lose someone. Having a general idea or understanding of what death is to different cultures or societies can set you up to be a better supporter when someone you know loses someone. Being curious can also help you expand your own understanding of death.
Explore different philosophies
Many different belief systems and philosophies have their own interpretations about death and what dying truly means. If you’re interested in expanding your belief system or getting some insight into what death is or what it truly is to die, consider researching different philosophies or the views of different religions surrounding death. An interesting place to start could be existentialist philosophy or simply doing an internet search for what different religions believe about death.
Ask meaningful questions
If you know someone who is dying, it can be important to normalize talking about death with those around you and other loved ones who could be affected by this loss. Ask them what some of their own worries, hopes, thoughts are on losing someone. Ask others with experience what their grieving process was like. If you’re religious, go to your religious leaders to ask what advice and thoughts they have on death that they can offer you. Talking directly to the person who is dying about death is a different experience than sharing with others your thoughts and feelings about death. Here are some questions to get you started:
- What does it mean to live a full life?
- What are ways I can leave behind a legacy?
- What are meaningful ways to leave an impact on others around me?
- What’s something you’re most afraid of about death?
- What do you wish to do before dying?
- What matters most to me in my life?
If you find yourself looking for more information on discussions you should have with a terminally ill family member, be sure to check out this article.